Thursday, 12 January 2017

Kent Fitness League 2016/17: Minnis Bay

The fourth match of the 2016/17 Kent Fitness League cross country season took place at Minnis Bay, which is in Birchington on the north coast of Kent. I first ran this race in 2015, so if you want to know a bit of history and have a more detailed course description please have a look at my Minnis Bay 2015 blog post.

dartford harriers [photos: becca / 7t]

At my only previous race here, I did pretty well - finishing in 36th position in a time of 42.16. I suspected that I wouldn't be able to match that performance from 2015, but I made a note of that finish time so I could compare at the end of the race.

The race started fairly well for me, with no holdups. The very splashy opening four kilometres from 2015 were almost bone dry due to the lack of rain this winter, so I was pretty happy to be running a cross country race with dry feet for a change. One thing I had forgotten was how monotonous this course is. There's a lot of running-in-a-straight-line to do and there's nothing more than open scrubland to look at.

during the first few kilometres [photos: funk dooby / becca / 7t]

I suffered from a stitch a few kilometres in and it made it difficult for me to sustain my pace, so I had to relinquish a few positions during the 3rd and 4th kilometres as my pace slowed. By the start of the second half of the race, it had subsided enough for me to push a little harder, so I did and I was slowly gaining on the group of runners in front of me.

Minnis Bay's 'course features' - the water dykes (or ditches) were coming up and I left the main path to negotiate them. The first two were bone dry, but the third one was full of very sticky mud. At this point I was side-by-side with one of my team mates and he got through without any trouble...

gettin' dirty pt.1 [photos: funk dooby]

However, when I stepped in, my foot kept going down deeper and deeper into the abyss. It was soon joined by the other foot and I had to claw my way out of it while it clung onto my lactate-filled, achy legs. Fortunately my shoes managed to stay attached to my feet.

The next few ditches were also muddy, but I got through with creating any more incidents. After the drama in the ditches, my rhythm had been broken and I found it really hard to get going again. A few runners caught up with me, but I just couldn't switch my legs back on, and so inevitably they passed me.

gettin' dirty pt.2 [photos: funk dooby]

Inside the last kilometre, the legs felt like they had partially woken up, but a large amount of the end of the race is run on single-file paths. The places where I felt strong enough to pass, I just couldn't squeeze through and by the time the course opened up, it was for the final 100 metre finish.

I'm not a great sprint finisher so I just pushed a little harder, but didn't break into an all-out sprint. I crossed the line and worked my way around to the end of the funnel where I was issued with raffle ticket number 75.

the last part of the race [photos: esther / eden]

This is the highest finishing position I have had this season, so I was pretty pleased to be within the top 100 again. My time was around a minute slower than my 2015 time, and while disappointed to not be a little closer, I wasn't surprised.

Something that did surprise me was that when I looked at the official results, it turns out that I actually scored for my club, which is something I was not expecting and it hadn't even crossed my mind. It looks like some of the good Harriers runners were either injured or hadn't turned up. Had I realised this beforehand, I might have been a little more aggressive in the closing stages of the race.

minnis all done for another year.. [photos: adam / 7t]

Last time at Minnis Bay, I didn't take any technology out on the course with me. However, this time around I wanted to gather the course data, so I ran with my phone in its case on my arm. I fortunately managed to keep it out of the mud and I now have the course GPS data to share with you all - Kent Fitness League: Minnis Bay 2017.

My club, Dartford Harriers won the combined (male and female) team competition despite coming second in both of the individual male and female competitions. This makes it four straight wins out of four races this season - the other three so far have been Knole Park, Swanley Park and Oxleas Wood. The remaining fixtures of the season are Nurstead Court, Blean Woods and Fowlmead.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Ellenbrook Fields parkrun

Hatfield is a town in Hertfordshire with a population of approximately 40,000 people. It's history is long and interesting and features many links to Royalty especially in the east of the town around 'Hatfield House' which is nestled within the extensive grounds of Hatfield Park and 'The Old Palace'. This is very interesting to read about, however, our attention must move to the west side of Hatfield....

The story of this parkrun venue starts in the 1930s when Geoffrey de Havilland (British aviation pioneer and aircraft engineer) (later Sir Geoffrey) was flying over farmland to the west of Hatfield town centre and saw a vast area of flat farmland that he decided to buy for use as an airfield as a much-required new location for his existing flying school and aircraft design business. The 'de Havilland Aircraft Company', was being squeezed out of its original site in Edgware by property developments.

ellenbrook fields - your flight is ready to board....

The new airfield opened in the 1930s and was called 'Hatfield Aerodrome'.The de Havilland company was a very important one for the British Aerospace Industry and it produced many planes over its existence. The most notable being the Mosquito - regarded as the most versatile warplane ever built, and the Comet - which was the first-ever jet airliner to go into production. By 1949 it employed nearly 4,000 people, making it the largest employer in Hatfield.

The company was merged into the Hawker Siddeley group in 1960, and the de Havilland name was dropped by 1963. The former companies are now owned by BAE Systems. Hatfield Aerodrome continued to be used until the early 1990s when BAE were experiencing severe financial problems and decided to close it down. The site has since been used for gravel extraction and this is still ongoing.

fasten your seatbelts for takeoff

Later on the site was used as a film set. The ruined fictional French village of 'Ramelle' was recreated for scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan and this set was used a second time for the television series Band of Brothers. During my visit I was told a story of Tom Hanks running up and down the old taxiing strip for some exercise during breaks in filming.

This brings us neatly around to modern day. Part of the old airfield land has partly been redeveloped into housing, retail and the Hertfordshire University campus. What remains is still owned by a private company, but has been opened to the public - it is now called Ellenbrook Fields. This gets its name, unsurprisingly, from Ellen Brook which is a tributary of the River Colne and flows north-south through the eastern side of the park.


On the 21st of May 2016, Ellenbrook Fields became home to Ellenbrook Fields parkrun. This free, 5km event takes place entirely on the paths around the park and attracts around 100-130 participants every week. I visited on 7 Jan 2017 and took part in event number 35. The weather was pretty mild for January, but there had been some rain the previous evening.

Upon arrival I parked just across the road in the vast car park within the grounds of Hertfordshire University's de Havilland campus (the name lives on!), as advised to do so on the event's course page. Incidentally, I should mention here that whilst planning my journey, I entered (into Google maps) the car park's postcode as given on the main parkrun course page and it created directions to a totally different part of the University campus, so please double check your sat nav before leaving home!

sluggish. like a wet sponge...

Parking is free at the weekend and toilet facilities are available within the main 'Hertfordshire Sports Village' building at the far end of the car park. Being a university campus, there are an incredible number of bicycle racks here to use if you have cycled to the event - alternatively, you could just use one of the fences within Ellenbrook Fields if you'd prefer. If travelling by train, you need to alight at Hatfield (Herts) Station, but please note that it is on the opposite side of the town so will require some kind of onward travel like cycling, walking, running, or perhaps taking the UNO 341 bus service which stops outside the park.

The course here is made up of a short start tail, 1.5 anti-clockwise laps of a small loop which runs adjacent to both banks of Ellen Brook. This is then followed by a large, single anti-clockwise lap of the rest of the park. As this used to be an airfield, you will not be shocked to hear that it is pancake flat. The start is on the long tarmac path which used to be the taxiing strip (yes - the one Tom Hanks ran up and down!).

there's something on the wing. some. thing.

Underfoot you will find a combination of tarmac/concrete paths, grass, gravel, and dirt - or when I visited, mud! So after the run briefing at the start line, the participants are sent off along the strip back in the direction of the entrance. A left turn at the end sees the runners and walkers following a meandering path northwards which when I visited was very wet and muddy.

After crossing a small bridge (at least I think it was a bridge) the participants takes another left-hand turn and this brings them back out at the end of the opening straight (1 small lap completed). They then follow the path back around as they did at the beginning until they cross the bridge for a second time - at this point they turn to their right (that's 1.5 times around the small lap) and begin the big lap.

mayday, mayday...

The big lap is very straight forward to follow as there isn't really any other path anyone can take. Most of the open grass areas in the centre of the park are fenced off for the resident Longhorn Cattle to graze in - their presence here is important as it prevents the meadows from becoming overgrown. Anyway, the path continues onward - underfoot is mostly grass/dirt(mud), but there is a short stretch of tarmac at one point in the middle somewhere.

There were a couple of sections that were very muddy, so I was pleased that I had arrived wearing my proper trail shoes, In the summer when it's nice and dry, I suspect road shoes will do fine, but in the winter this is definitely a trail shoe course. As I reached the final part of the muddy, offroad section I spotted a few mounds which are part of the gravel extraction that still takes place here.

At this point, eagle-eyed runners might spot, to their left, a series of tall wooden posts - these have been carefully placed at the 'runway rest' to show the location and width of the original 2km-long concrete runway. The runway itself was dug up in 2001 and the material was recycled for use as part of the construction material for the new roads and car parks that were being built on the development.

final approach / touchdown...

After this, the off-road part of the course is finished (mostly) and all that is left is for the participants to run the full length of the taxiing strip, past the start line and down to the Ellen Brook where there is a right hand turn back onto grass (or mud - careful, it was quite slippery here). As the corner is turned, the finish line awaits and the barcode scanners are on hand at the far end of the funnel to scan personal barcodes and finishing tokens. I recorded my run using Strava and you can see my GPS data here - Ellenbrook Fields parkrun #35.

There were lots of amazing marshals dotted all around the course and I chatted to a few of them as I went back out onto the course to cool down and take some photos. I also met and chatted to two volunteers who have known of parkrun since its very early days as they are the parents of a fairly obscure and not-at-all-well-known-in-the-parkrun-community 500 club member and former 'The parkrun Show' presenter. Since Ellenbrook Fields parkrun started, they have both become invaluable members of the volunteer team and kindly posed for a photo with me (actually, I didn't even have to ask - they must be so used to random people asking for photos that they just got into position!). Their enthusiasm and energy for the event was incredible and it really made my day having the pleasure to chat to them about the event and the history of the airfield. So thank you to Lynne, John and the rest of the day's volunteers for making us feel so welcome.

thank you for flying with us

Post-parkrun, we popped back to the car so I could change out of my muddy clothes and shoes, and headed over to the cafe in the Hertfordshire Sports Village building where we had some refreshments, but somehow managed to lose the rest of the parkrun crowd. I'm not sure if we went to the wrong place (there are more than one cafe on the university campus) or if the team just had to get away early.

Anyway, our sandwiches (it was pretty much lunchtime by now anyway) and coffee were very nice and we spent a long time chatting about the fantastic sports facilities that are available here for the public to use - the fees seemed to be quite reasonable too. Once we were done we popped outside to find the huge de Havilland logo on one of the building's wall, and then went over to the local shopping centre to spend some left-over christmas money before heading back down to Kent. We'd had a fantastic time at Ellenbrook Fields parkrun and I'd recommend that locals and tourists alike give it a go.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Woodley parkrun

Woodley is a town in Berkshire and also a suburb of Reading. Its name means 'a clearing in the wood' and it is thought that the wood in question was Windsor Forest / Windsor Great Park. Pre Second World War, Woodley was a village, but during the 1930's Woodley Aerodrome was opened, firstly as a flying school and shortly after, the manufacture of the Miles Hawk 2-seat light monoplane began.

The expansion of Woodley continued in the post-war years as industry moved into the area from Reading and new housing developments were built. The aerodrome closed in the 1960's and since then the town has essentially become an extension of Reading. In 1964 Woodford Park was opened and this is the park that is home to Woodley parkrun.

woodley parkrun [photos: 7t / kevin lewington / simon light]

Arriving in Woodley on New Year's Day 2017 after just running at Maidenhead parkrun, I had a couple of parking options available. The advice on the Woodley parkrun website is to use the pay and display car park opposite the entrance to the park, however, I had spent some time looking on Google maps and had found a side street, a few hundred metres away, to park on and I ran the rest of the way to Woodford Park.

Had I taken the train, I would have headed for Earley station which is approximately 2 kilometres away from the park. For anyone taking their bicycle to the venue, I spotted some bicycle racks just outside the Brown Bag Cafe at the Oakwood Centre, which is quite convenient as this is where the team head to for the post-run refreshments.

early part of the lap [photos: 7t / simon light]

As for toilets, it looks like the original park facilities were demolished a few years ago. From what I can see on the Woodley Town Council website, the Oakwood Centre is now the place to head to for toilet facilities.

Once at the Headley Road entrance to the park, I immediately spotted a cluster of hi-vis vests and continued to jog over towards them. The event had its inaugural event back in October 2012 and you can tell that there is a very well oiled team on hand here. The meeting point is at the skate park and as I was a little early, I had a little look around the park.

the northern half of the park [photos: 7t]

The park is essentially divided into two sections - the southern part is your typical town park with a playground, skate park, cafe, and war memorial. The northern side is mostly sports orientated and in between the two halves there is a lake, which was added to the park in the early 1970's.

I headed back over to the meeting area and was just in time for the first-timers briefing. After this, the main briefing took place at the skate park and the runners where then ushered over to the start line, which is on the grass just outside the Oakwood Centre.

around the lake [photos: 7t]

The course is run over three laps (not completely identical) and underfoot there is a combination of grass and tarmac. It is essentially flat, but the northern half is at a slightly higher elevation than the south side so there is a slight incline/decline to run each time you switch between the two.

The course is narrow in places however it is perfectly runnable with a buggy. Also, the team ask that runners do not run with head/ear-phones on/in. However, those that still wish to listen to music can do, provided they keep one ear free to listen out for instructions from the marshals around the course - please read the text in the course description on the course page for more information.

southern side [photos: 7t]

The first lap is slightly different to the second and third. From the start, the runners head diagonally across the open grass field at the front of the park before picking up the tarmac path and following it around, past the lake and up a short, sharp incline which brings them out in the northern half of the park which is made up of a selection of sports pitches. Soon the surface underfoot changes to a grassy/dirt path and this is followed right around the perimeter of the football pitches until it rejoins the tarmac path which brings the runners out back at the lake.

Following the path around lake, the runners soon arrive back in the southern section and head along the tarmac path down to the southern border adjacent to Headley Road. The runners face a little chicane around the war memorial and then reach the corner where the run started. For laps two and three they continue to follow the tarmac path which leads back down to the lake - here the runners continue to follow the same route as before.

war memorial / finish [photos: 7t / kevin lewington]

At the end of lap three, at the war memorial, instead of continuing on the tarmac path, the runners are directed onto the grass where there is a final dash straight over to the finish funnel. I had my barcode scanned right next to the finish line and briefly headed off for a cool down.

Returning a few minutes later, I bumped into the Woodley parkrun's original Event Director and parkrun South East Region ambassador, Kerri and a few other parkrun tourists including Adrian and Chris.

post-run [photos: 7t / kevin lewington]

After a little time spent chatting, I was starting to feel the cold. So I headed off to the car to get changed and start the hour-and-a-half journey back to Kent. The official results had been processed by the time I arrived home and I saw that 315 people had taken part in the run. This was a little higher than the average turnout, but not by a huge amount. As always I had recorded my run using the Strava app on my phone and you can see the exact route, elevation etc via this link: Woodley parkrun event 226. I'd had a fab New Year's Day morning out in Berkshire visiting two lovely venues - a huge thanks, as always, goes to the volunteers that were out making this all possible!

Maidenhead parkrun

Every year on New Year's Day, parkrun HQ allow us parkrunners to register two official parkruns on the same day and I have taken them up on the offer every year since I started parkrunning. Over the last few years I have tried to run a different double each year and this time around, I decided that I would visit the closest possible double of two venues that I hadn't already run. This meant an hour-and-a-bit drive from Kent to Berkshire to run at Maidenhead parkrun at 9am followed by Woodley parkrun at 10.30am (Woodley parkrun blog). Here goes...

Maidenhead is a town in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which is in the county of Berkshire. It lies on the south (or west) bank of the River Thames - there are a few different theories floating around as to exactly how the name Maidenhead came to be.

There was, in 1280, a wharf was built on the bank of the River Thames and this lead to the area being called Maiden-hythe (meaning: New Wharf). Other theories point towards the Welsh Celtic name of Ma-y-Din-Heth (meaning: place of the Fort of Barley) being the source of the name. There is also the theory that it comes from the 'Maiden's Head' - this was said to be the skull of one of St. Ursula's eleven thousand virginal handmaidens that were massacred in Cologne, although it is widely believed that this is just a legend rather than historic fact.

braywick park / briefing [photos: 7t / nick baggot (official photographer)]

Whichever one is correct, as the Maiden-hythe area expanded, the hamlet of South Ellington, which occupied the site of the modern day Maidenhead town centre, was eventually merged into one. There are a few other slightly different theories floating around, but instead of spending too much time on that, let's move onto the whole point of this blog...

Maidenhead parkrun is based at Braywick Park which is just to the south of the town centre and is the largest open public space in Maidenhead. Braywick itself is noted as one of the earliest settlements in the Thames Valley area with evidence of mesolithic flintwork dating from at least 5,000bc and neolithic pottery dating back to 3340bc.

In the park itself, there is also evidence that a Roman road once ran through it. It has also been the location of 18th and 19th century mansion houses. In more recent times, mineral extraction took place here - once that ceased, the area was used for landfill before finally becoming a public park.

early part of the course [photos: 7t]

Braywick Park covers an area of 40 hectares and is largely used for sports. In fact, you'll be hard-pushed to find a sport that isn't covered here - there's an athletics track, football and hockey pitches, a gym, archery, and golf driving range. Maidenhead Target Shooting Club and Maidenhead Rugby Club are based here. You'll also find SportsAble, which is a sports association for disabled people, a play area and an outdoor 2012 Olympics outdoor physical activity area.

Adjacent to the sports fields is a 15 hectare nature reserve, which provides a range of habitats for wildlife. It also has an education centre, where the park rangers run a wide range of educational events. The eastern border of the park is flanked by a 23km long river called The Cut which rises in North Ascot and flows into the Thames.

Parking at the venue is quite straight forward as there is a fair-sized public car park next to the main vehicle entrance to the park just off Braywick Road. At time of writing, the car park is free-of-charge at the weekends. It is worth noting that there are a few different car parking areas in the vicinity, so you must make sure you park in the correct one.

early-mid lap [photos: 7t]

There is also an open space next to the parkrun meeting area which people were parking in, but it was unclear (to me) if this is part of the official car parking area or not (it's not mentioned on the Maidenhead parkrun page). The closest train station is Maidenhead and this is located just to the north of the park. For cyclists, there are bicycle racks adjacent to the main car park. There are also some toilets in the park and they are located in a building over near Maidenhead Rugby Club and the artificial football pitches.

The parkrun meeting point can be found by following the road to the left of Stafferton Lodge (Toby Carvery) right to the end. Stafferton Lodge is a mid-Victorian villa and is built on the site of the Staverton family's second home, which was called 'Little Stroud'. Their main home was called Stroud Manor and was located in Holyport (2 miles south of Maidenhead). William Staverton was one of the surveyors of Maidenhead Bridge.

At the meeting point you'll find the aforementioned 'open space' and a small hut/shelter thingy. This is where the participants and volunteers congregate pre-run. About 10 minutes before the start of the run, a very entertaining and informative 'new runners' briefing was held where the course was described in detail. For the record, buggy runners will be fine on this course but will need to be extra mindful of ankle-clipping at the pinch points / tight turns, especially near the beginning of the run.

mid-end lap [photos: 7t]

The main briefing took place and it was time to head off. The run starts in the 'sports fields' part of the park which is nice and wide, but after about 100-or-so metres all the runners must filter onto a much narrower path. This winds its way towards the nature reserve, which is where the majority of the run takes place. A sharp left-hand turn awaits the runners shortly after and the runners then reach the main loop which is run twice.

The rectangular-shaped loop of the nature reserve is run in a clockwise direction and is mostly firm underfoot, but in the winter it's likely to be splashy and a little muddy so I'd say trail shoes are better during the colder/wetter months. The far side of the loop is run adjacent to The Cut and at the end of this section there is a short two-way path across a bridge where you keep to the left. This is followed by a fiddly, twisty section which features a short, sharp uphill climb (great fun!). Apart from that, the entire course is flat and sheltered from the wind, so it is quite possible to run a fairly good time here if you're in the mood.

end of lap / path to finish [photos: 7t / nick baggott (official photographer)]

After two laps around the perimeter of the nature reserve, the runners break off from the loop and head back along the windy opening stretch until they reach the sports fields and the finish line where they can collect their finishing token. If you think you have run a personal best, pick up the PB bell and give it a ring! I didn't have to opportunity to do so because I had run at a fairly comfortable pace and stopped to take some photos on the way around.

I had my barcode scanned right next to the finish line before heading back into the nature reserve to have a little cool down, takes some photos, and to thank the brilliant volunteers out on the course. As mentioned above, I visited on New Year's Day 2017 a few of the marshals were wishing every single runner a happy new year, plus they were so smiley and bouncy - they really made my visit here very memorable.

finish [photos: 7t]

I had recorded the run using the Strava app on my phone and if you want to see the elevation data etc, you can view it all here: Maidenhead parkrun event 93. Being New Year's Day, there was no time to hang out with the team post-run as I had to dash over to Woodley, but on a regular day, I understand that they go to Stafferton Lodge (Toby Carvery) for a coffee and a chat. I hear the all-you-can-eat breakfast includes a 'breakfast yorkshire pudding', but be careful if you are vegetarian because they actually contain bacon.

I'd had a very enjoyable visit to Maidenhead parkrun, but it was now time to move onto Woodley parkrun for round two of my New Year's Day double. The official results were processed shortly afterwards and I saw that there had been 188 runners on-the-day of my visit, which is pretty much about the same as a regular Saturday morning parkrun here.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Greenwich parkrun (Christmas day 2016)

As I have done for the last six years, I wanted to squeeze in a Christmas Day parkrun, but didn't want to have a long journey. I have accidentally ended up never repeating the same venue on Christmas Day and I quite fancied maintaining the tradition, so instead of the closer option at Danson Park in Bexley which I ran on Christmas Day in 2014, I opted for the next closest which was Greenwich parkrun.

It had been three-and-a-half years since my first visit to Avery Hill Park, in Eltham, which is in the Royal London borough of Greenwich (which lends its name to the event). At that event, I ran with my daughter in her running buggy, my phone's battery failed and didn't record the run data, and the course was a little different.

greenwich parkrun

This time around I was standing on the start line sans-buggy, and decided to have a run that was not eyeballs-out fast, but quick enough to get the heart rate up before the rest of the day's indulgences kicked in. The start area is exactly the same as it was at my last visit, with the run heading off over grass via a short incline.

The course is run anti-clockwise, so features mostly left-hand turns. The first of these comes after the football pitches where there was a marshal and some tape to help runners avoid any temptation of cutting the corner. Now on the other side of a thin line of trees, the course heads ever-so-gently downhill to the southern end which is where we find the first of the changes..

a few snaps near the start/finish area

Previously, the southern border was run on grass which had lots of bumpy tree roots to negotiate. This has now been upgraded to a proper path, so the course that was previously 75% grass / 25% tarmac is now around 44% grass / 56% tarmac. The path meanders a little and rises ever-so-gently along the southern and eastern borders of the park. The final section of tarmac is the steepest section of the course and this leads runners from the eastern edge towards the highest point of the park.

Returning to the grass at the top, the runners head past a circle of large rocks and then hit a short, sharp downhill which returns them to the start area. The course is still run over three laps, but the final change since my last visit is the positioning of the finish funnel. Back in 2013, it was at the bottom of the downhill whereas it is now at the top, just before the stone circle.


With the run complete, the finishers head back over to the meeting point, which is outside the Avery Hill Park Cafe where a couple of fab volunteers took care of barcode scanning. There was quite a lot to take in as the event had also just had a finish line marriage proposal (congratulations) and a new course record set [full results].

This time around, my GPS did not fail, so if you want to see the course in detail, you can have a look at my data from the run, here: Greenwich parkrun event 363. With all the parkrun excitement out of the way and it being Christmas Day, I found my wife and daughter, and after a brief period taking selfies and playing in the leaves, we jumped in the car and headed home to see if Santa had dropped by while we were out (for the record, he had).

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